President Clinton on Wednesday declared a key element of the $368.5 billion tobacco settlement plan “totally unreasonable,” as a major public health report presented to Congress and the White House harshly criticized much of the landmark deal.
The developments signaled that the proposed settlement negotiated by state attorneys general, tobacco companies and smokers’ lawyers will require fundamental changes if it is to become law.
Clinton, during a news conference at the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Madrid, blasted a section of the proposed settlement that would limit the Food and Drug Administration’s power to restrict or ban nicotine if doing so would create a black market in cigarettes.
The remarks were Clinton’s first public criticism of the settlement plan.
“Would we deny the FDA the right to protect 100 percent of our children because there’s a few black-market cigarettes around?” he said. “It seems to me it’s a totally unreasonable restriction.”
The president, who referred to the possibility of banning nicotine “outright,” immediately set off alarms in the tobacco industry. The country’s five major tobacco companies issued a statement noting, “The White House has repeatedly made clear that it is not in favor of prohibiting the use of tobacco products by adults,” only minors.
“The preservation of the rights of American adults to choose to use tobacco products is a central element of the proposed tobacco resolution,” the tobacco statement said.
The report to Congress and the White House, commissioned by House and Senate members and presented by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, supported Clinton’s criticism, proposed sweeping alternatives to the settlement plan and called for increasing cigarette taxes by as much as $2 a pack to fund its initiatives.
Several House and Senate leaders, including Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who is a chairman of the 80-member Congressional Task Force on Tobacco and Health, said they would use the 70-page report as a model for overhauling the proposed settlement.
“It fails to protect future generations of American children from nicotine addiction and tobacco-related deaths,” Meehan said.
“It would be a dangerous mistake to view the document as anything more than a starting point.”
Clinton, who has reserved judgment on most of the proposed settlement, highlighted one of the most potentially contentious issues in attacking the provision that would prohibit the FDA from banning nicotine for at least 12 years.
Under the settlement plan, the FDA also would be prevented from requiring tobacco companies to lower nicotine levels without a potentially lengthy legal process.
The report by Koop and Kessler, presented at the White House to Vice President Al Gore, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala and Clinton’s domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed, said a policy granting the FDA full authority to limit or ban nicotine “should be made completely explicit” in the settlement plan.
The five tobacco companies - Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and U.S. Tobacco - defended the provision.
“The industry believes that the proposed resolution appropriately balances the various factors that should be considered in any determination to ban nicotine.”